The Endless Death of Prog Rock


This is a story about one of the most difficult love affairs of my life. 

I lived next door to a music student while living abroad last year, which meant that music was often the subject of our conversations. “I’ve been listening to a bit of prog rock recently,” I said one day, as casually as I could manage. At this point I was deeply immersed in the bands Yes, Jethro Tull, and Gentle Giant, and consequently also immersed in the feeling of being exiled from my own generation. I would have loved to have found a fellow progressive sympathizer under the age of forty. Instead, my neighbor laughed in my face. The chat came to a swift close. (Later that night, I heard him alone in his room, playing “Beauty and the Beast” on the piano while singing operatically.)

My isolation only grew. Earlier this year, I decided to email nearly every professor in Colorado College’s music department to ask if they could give their insights on the “progressive rock” genre. Only two replied, each in their own way admitting that progressive rock was the one genre that they never bothered with. On a separate occasion, I showed my piano teacher Yes’ “Heart of the Sunrise,” and he sat there shaking his head, chuckling. I’ll never forget (or forgive) that he skipped ahead in the YouTube video when the beginning got too tedious for him.

Progressive rock is one of the most ridiculed music genres of all time. It began in the late ‘60s in England, where its biggest monsters were born: Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, are just a few. Although each band had their own sound and style, they were united by their 20-minute songs, top-tier virtuosity, complex time signatures, and concept albums whose concepts were often unclear. 

I wasn’t insulted when people cringed at my enthusiasm for the genre. I myself cringed for years. Ever since about the age of one—when I came to the conclusion that life was a sham, adults could not be trusted, and most people knew nothing—I have shielded myself with a sarcastic approach to the world. Not taking anything entirely seriously was a reliable way to avoid getting pummeled daily by letdowns. That is why, when I first found prog rock, much of which really does fall deep into the realm of pointless virtuosic excess, I thought I’d found the perfect joke.

The term “progressive” itself was where I’d thought the joke began. By the late ‘60s, rock had growing pains, phasing out its peppy and danceable three-minute songs and instead experimenting with as many musical influences as rock artists did drugs. “Progressive” was an especially strange term because musicians were turning to long-dead classical composers for guidance. Classical music’s technical structures allowed for intricate compositions in more drawn-out pieces. More importantly, it also allowed these musicians, most of whom were as English as mince pie, to borrow from their home tradition rather than emulate American rock styles. 

Accordingly, many of prog’s greatest hits were composed and performed with the kind of sober seriousness required to write a symphony. But it was also the ‘70s, so there was a predilection for sci-fi, cerebral fantasies, spiritual journeys, and other elements so new and random that they barely held up well enough to be categorized. Past meshed with future to make for a weird present. Often the prog sound wasn’t just a challenge to play, but also to listen to, with the goofy whines of a then-new Moog synthesizer and Mellotron, melodramatic flute and/or chime interludes, seemingly endless keyboard solos consisting of an explosion of arbitrary notes, and time signatures that could cause seizures. (I discovered that in Genesis’ “Firth of Fifth,” certain bars are in the rare time signatures of 13/16 and 15/16, alternating with bars of 2/4). Typical prog songs were about alien invasions, the perpetual rebirth of life, or an astronaut getting sucked into a black hole (all real examples). If all of those were to be in one song, that would be fine, too.

Everything was a hoot—random and colorful and free. During live shows, Peter Gabriel of Genesis wore outlandish costumes of his own creation to accompany the stories of the songs. His most famous costume was the “Slipperman,” which covered his entire body with mustard-yellow gourd-shaped lumps. It looked like an artistic glob of phlegm, or perhaps a diseased penis. 

What other genre—or for that matter, what other anything—was as silly, and all the sillier for not realizing how silly it was? Prog, to me, had soon become an object of both humor and fascination. The most ostentatious bits of prog rock sound like a group of music academy boys trying to outplay each other, all of them reading from a Bach concerto written backwards. The better part of me hated this. It would have been easy, and maybe wise, to actively limit my knowledge of prog. After all, legendary radio DJ John Peel once called it “a waste of electricity.” I myself once called it, “that one genre that dads would get protective about via YouTube comments.” (In the comment feed of a Gentle Giant youtube video, one “Ezra Nixon” remarked: “I live in a world of madness, All i listen to is ‘70s prog, And no one else can hear what it is im hearing, they’re too busy listening to wank like artic [sic] monkeys and all shite like that.”) Alas, instead of ignoring prog, I chose to test the waters. Little did I know, prog is not just music—it is another dimension entirely, and I was about to get lost in it.

Confusion began to settle in, now not toward the music so much as toward the question of how much of a joke I was taking prog to be. I began to mistrust my own cynicism, feeling that it wasn’t me, really, but rather some flimsy inheritance of my generation. To help me with my quandary, I tracked down several middle-aged folks who had witnessed prog’s great rise and fall. One of them was Peter Economy, a friend of my friend’s dad. He attended Stanford in the ‘70s—the right time and place for him to fall into drugged nerd-rock. “Concerts were theatrical experiences,” he said. “At the time it seemed normal to us to have a spectacle.” Peter Gabriel’s especially abnormal costumes were no exception. “You wouldn’t laugh, just like you wouldn’t laugh about going to a play where people are wearing weird costumes...Gabriel was telling stories through the words, and the costumes he wore reflected the meaning behind them.”

It was refreshing to hear such earnest respect for a band with Phil Collins in it. In all seriousness, Economy’s description affirmed what I was beginning to get out of the music: it was a portal into absurd musical optimism and elaborate imagination. Another middle-aged interviewee, this one a friend I made in Manchester, England, said something similar: “The color and fantasy art were a big part of the attraction. Those were the days when so much was put into it. It got slagged off as being over-the-top and unnecessary, but it made the whole thing more of a spectacle and helped you get lost in the other world. Music for reality-escapers, I guess.”

Intrigued, I gave special focus to the band Yes, as I found that nearly everything that could be said of prog in general could be said of them in particular. White English men, well-educated, classically trained, late ‘60s. The king of prog may well be Yes’ lead singer Jon Anderson, who was also essentially its conductor and spiritual mastermind. Even today, Anderson’s ambition radiates from his 5’5” frame. He has a pure, high-pitched voice and the demeanor of a gentle woodland creature. What he sings is often incredibly cryptic riddle-gibberish, but it’s sung with such persuasion that you don’t even think to question whether he knows exactly what it’s all about. 

In fact, “knowing exactly what it’s all about” was exactly what Yes was all about. Their songs were meticulously composed and played. Minute technical effects changed constantly (the changes even became the cause of rising tensions within the band). In a YouTube video of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant talking about prog, Plant recalled that, instead of celebrating after a gig, Yes would go back to their hotel and listen to the hours-long set they had just performed, taking note of nuances and discussing possible improvements. Understandably baffled, Robert Plant then asked, “What the fuck’s the point of that?” 

Yes was as big and bold in their mistakes as they were in their ambition. “Spinal Tap,” perhaps the best parody of bands like Yes, was brilliantly accurate because of Yes’ determination for grandeur in both their music and their stage sets. In 1973, Yes entered their most far-gone chapter, recording their double-album, “Tales from Topographic Oceans.” The concept was inspired by a single footnote from the famous Autobiography of a Yogi. The album consisted of only four songs and was nearly one and a half hours long. And that was just from a footnote.

Anderson adamantly believed that creating the album in a pastoral environment would help musical creativity flow. Recording logistics, however, posed a challenge. They had to stay in London, so Anderson ended up redecorating their recording studio into an elaborate barnyard scene: potted flowers perched on equipment and bales of hay scattered throughout. Some loose hay littered the floor and got into technical equipment. Yes’ keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, recalls having to navigate a maze of electrically powered cut-out cows just to get to his keyboard. If you had to guess which of Yes’ albums was recorded among fake cows, you’d likely guess “Tales.” It’s by far the most tedious album of the lot. 

“Tales” appeared to mark the beginning of the end for Yes. As if sensing this, they didn’t want to go with a whimper, but with a bang. In live performances of the album, drummer Alan White sat with his kit in a giant seashell, which opened electronically upon his entrance. One night the shell failed to open, leaving him desperate for air. The stage crew hacked away at it with axes while feeding White oxygen tubes. He eventually got out, staggering and gasping for breath. Much of the audience saw what happened but didn’t realize until later that it was not a highly profound physical interpretation of the music, but in fact a near-fatal mishap.

When I imagine this scene, the words of CC English Professor Steve Hayward, another interviewee, echo in my head: “We made fun of prog in the day...there wasn’t a moment when you didn’t wonder, is this just a little too much?” Not even seashell mishaps and surreal stage sets were enough to hold the attention of Rick Wakeman himself. Wakeman was always known as being the lone lumbering carnivore and beer guzzler among the group of intensely skinny and spiritual vegetarians. But by the time the band was working on “Tales,” his patience had truly expired, this time onstage. During a long keyboardless section of a song, Wakeman had Indian takeout delivered and ate it onstage while the others played. He was visible to thousands. 

A few musicians didn’t take the hint, and instead took their music further. Their ambition was manic. The music became miserable. The tragedy was that many of these bands just couldn’t bring themselves to see their own decline. It was as if the music was getting botox operation after botox operation to fight against the natural flow of the universe, thinking it appeared okay, when really it looked uglier than if it had just let time pass. Meanwhile, younger people tried to hasten prog’s death with their ridicule and their support of punk, an explicitly anti-prog genre. It was a sad time for all of us prog lovers (except me because I hadn’t been born yet).

The band blunders and near-sighted idiocy are more than comedy gold; they’re also windows into a kind of ambitious optimism that doesn’t appear often in the music world. While most music surrenders to the samples, trends, and guaranteed-hit formulas, the best of progressive rock abandoned security for total devotion to craft and to the possibly-childish belief that there were completely untouched musical frontiers to be met. It was unabashed freedom. They were determined to get this freedom by any means necessary, even if it meant looking like idiots.

The sound of Yes, and Genesis, and Rush is the sound of a dreamer getting so lost in a fantastic new dimension that they forget they even have an audience. It is music free of cynicism, apathy, and coolness, whatever that entails, and that’s what makes it not just music to listen to, but also music to inhabit, and even take as a friend. (Sorry, Rush reference: “Take a Friend.”)

That prog is largely dismissed today is an indication—albeit an unfortunate one—that it remained loyal to its early intentions. It was to be a “an ever-extending idea,” as Anderson once put it, which is a difficult one for most to digest. It was music to be “music created with honest and open attitudes.” And despite legal battles and numerous band member changes, Yes’ members were so dedicated that there are now two Yes bands, for confusing reasons concerning rights to the band name and logo. One is “Yes,” clean and simple, and the other is “Yes: featuring Anderson, Rabin, and Wakeman.” Goes to show that they’re as dorky as ever, and thank goodness for it.

Under a shell-pink sky in early September, I found myself at a “Yes: featuring Anderson, Rabin, and Wakeman” concert, bobbing in a sea of grey hair and beer.

“Look a little young to be here,” one man told me (a variation on a theme I was to hear throughout the evening). He looked doubtful, as if he took me for a yellow journalist from some hotshot hipster dubstep magazine. His doubt melted immediately when we both said we were hoping the band would play “Heart of the Sunrise.” Later on, our wish came true. We watched with our hands in our pockets. He, like me, must have been in awe that these raisins of men sounded nearly as polished as they did in the 1971 official recorded version.  After decades of criticism, band conflicts, round-the-clock recording sessions, and deafening Moog synthesizer, the band was still in Neverland; Wakeman still wore his trademark sequin cape, and Anderson swayed with those entranced, perfectly blissed out movements, holding his tambourine atop his personal foot-high platform. What once was so ‘70s suddenly felt timeless. 

I took in the rest of the audience. Most were reclining in their lawn chairs, with some fans standing up and triumphantly punching the air in time with the scattered percussion. I must have been the only one under 40. I thought of Anderson’s words in one interview: “Music is forever, not just for the radio, not just for the business. I think that’s what younger people are getting into and appreciating Yes for.” The fact that there was at least one 21-year old in the audience proved that his optimism wasn’t delusional after all.